Review: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, 2011, dir. Rodman Flender

I like to think that modern audiences understand and accept that the performers, filmmakers, and other media personalities they admire and support are actual people underneath the images they project. So in theory, a movie like Rodman Flender’s Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop should feel like a no-brainer, and the sight of the titular beloved comedian being human– and all that that entails– shouldn’t feel particularly shocking or even all that revealing. But as Flender’s documentary follows O’Brien on tour in the months following his release from the service of NBC, the beloved comedian of the title peels back the layers of his persona and bares all of his anger, frustration, resentment, and optimism with impressive candor. The effect is a picture that’s fearlessly honest and incredibly moving at the same time– if you can keep up with Conan, of course.

The birth of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop stems in the events surrounding his exodus from the Tonight Show‘s hosting position, the details of which Flender lays out succinctly at the beginning of his film (though if his presentation of the facts indicates anything, it’s that he’s clearly taken sides on the matter). As a consequence of the “scheduling dispute” at the heart of the late night TV kerfuffle, O’Brien found himself forbidden from appearing on TV until September, 2010; as a consequence of that, O’Brien and several cohorts (Andy Richter, members of Max Weinberg’s band) fired off a 30 city tour across the country to perform live. Flender’s film begins at the point of the tour’s conception, and covers the journey around the country while Conan gives us a glimpse of who he is and what drives him.

Put in simple terms, it’s a need to be on stage and be the center of attention for a crowd of people. I almost feel like there’s an addiction allegory in here somewhere as Conan pushes himself probably beyond any recommended limits just to get up and tell jokes for five minutes, much less a whole hour. Of course, Flender’s being purely documentarian, here, so he establishes no such themes at the cost of his film’s integrity, but Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop almost becomes harrowing at times as the toll O’Brien’s tour takes on him shows more and more on the surface. The strain performance puts on him shows its face in a number of ways, none more ugly than a backstage moment in which Conan belittles and mocks and insults Jack McBrayer relentlessly while the latter remains dumbfounded at the barrage of japes aimed at him– everyone else seems to be in on the joke but McBrayer clearly either doesn’t get it or just doesn’t find it funny.

That’s probably the strongest aspect of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop— it’s not afraid to frankly present its subject as something of a jerk. That’s not to say that Flender exposes O’Brien as a terrible human being beneath his public persona, of course, just that he’s willing to show the full circumference of the writer-comedian by taking the bad with the good. O’Brien flips back and forth between being a performer of the people and grousing about interacting with his fans; in the midst of his rumblings there naturally arises the question of which side of him best represents who he really is, and the answer (of course) is “both”.

When a film gets this personal and intimate with a personality of O’Brien’s caliber, inevitably that film becomes about how draining fandom can be on a performer. When O’Brien speaks with his adoring masses, there’s no mistaking his affection for them as being anything other than genuine, but this doesn’t disallow him from being tired and overwhelmed at the hands of their demanding adulation. It’s ground that’s been tread by films and other media before and in more ridiculous ways– maybe there are more prominent examples, but Warren Ellis’ excellent graphic novel Transmetropolitan immediately springs to my mind– but Conan is a remarkable figure whose willingness to make himself vulnerable makes him feel thoroughly knowable, which in turn makes Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop feel that much more compelling. It’s one of the rarest and most pure glimpses into the life of a performer to come along in years.

And, unsurprisingly, it’s funny, though Flender’s film can’t be recommended purely on the basis of comedy. There’s almost something somber about the picture’s wisecracking, whether it’s backstage and behind closed doors or out on the stage for all to see. A good chunk of the film’s run time is dedicated to footage of Conan performing during various tour stops; while he truly seems to come to life in his capacity as a performer, the movie shows just how much of a toll O’Brien’s profession takes on him. More than that, Flenderman underscores, fervently, how much the comedian’s profession means to him, and in doing so the filmmaker portrays Conan’s moments in the spotlight as incredibly touching. Sure, Conan goes out on stage for his fans– but he also does it for his own edification.

What strikes me as being something of a flaw in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop lies in who Flenderman’s speaking to; I don’t think this is a film for anyone other than fans of O’Brien and possibly the ambivalent. His detractors (though, in fairness, I imagine he has but a few) aren’t going to have their minds changed by the heartfelt and touching message at the film’s center. Flenderman’s not quite preaching to the choir here, since many might well be surprised at the Conan they see behind the scenes, but he’s not turning any converts, either,though that ultimately isn’t his purpose: If the work here is somewhat narrow, it makes up for it by being thoroughly engaging and entertaining.

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